Dame Penelope Keith on Guildford Cathedral campaign, green belt battles and Milford life


- Credit: Andy Newbold

As a former High Sheriff of Surrey and one of the county’s most tireless charity supporters, Dame Penelope Keith is no stranger to good causes. But her latest campaign – to preserve Guildford Cathedral for future generations – is particularly close to her heart. Here, she tells us how we can help, chats about her home life in Milford, and explains why our countryside has never been under greater threat...


- Credit: Andy Newbold

In To The Manor Born, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton battled relentlessly to save her former ancestral home from the brash money-making ventures of nouveau-riche millionaire Richard DeVere. And now, in a case of life imitating art, actress Dame Penelope Keith, who made the part her own, is battling to save another listed building – Guildford Cathedral – which needs to raise £1.3m by August to remain open.

Penelope, 74, who is a vice- president of the cathedral appeal, says the race is on to raise the money so an application can be submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a significant grant towards the total £7m needed. The most urgent requirement is to remove and replace crumbling plasterwork in the vaults, which contains harmful asbestos. Although the asbestos doesn’t pose any immediate health risk, without action the cathedral is at serious risk of closure. The aim is also to improve the cathedral’s disabled access, lighting and sound systems.

“We don’t have much longer to meet our deadline, so it’s all hands to the wheel,” says Penelope. “Everyone is working hard to reach the target. The Dean, the Very Reverend Dianna Gwilliams, is even doing a sponsored abseil down the spire, though I’d pay her not to do it, wouldn’t you?”


Community spirit

Built in 1961 and designed by Sir Edward Maufe, the building, the last Church of England cathedral to be consecrated on a new site, combines Gothic tradition and 20th century construction techniques with a simple aesthetic of space and light.

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It was also uniquely funded in an extraordinary demonstration of modern community spirit. After construction was interrupted by the Second World War, its completion was made possible only when more than 200,000 ordinary people ‘bought a brick’ for 2s 6d (12.5p), made from the Stag Hill clay on which the cathedral stands.

The Buy a Brick campaign galvanised not just the diocese, but the whole country. Schoolchildren clubbed together to purchase a brick, bricks were bought in memory of loved ones, and even honeymooning couples pitched in to celebrate their lifelong commitment to each other. And then, of course, there was the Queen and Prince Philip, who visited the cathedral in 1957, and whose signed bricks are now on display near the chapter house.

This remarkable feat of local engagement is reflected in the new Make Your Mark campaign. Messages left as part of the campaign will be added to a Make Your Mark Manuscript, which will be kept in the treasury for future generations. The plan is also to use appeal funds to develop visitor resources, where the stories of the ‘brick-makers’ can be told.

“I was one of the people who bought a brick,” says Penelope. “I drove down from London with a friend in the late Sixties and bought one for half a crown. It was terribly exciting to have this wonderful new building after the war because there was so little around then. And now we’re appealing to a new generation to make their mark. The cathedral is built, but we’re saying, ‘Be a brick and help save it for future generations’.”


Extensive charity work

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Penelope was asked to front the appeal because one feels she would be a dab hand in a crisis. She looks like the kind of unflappable Englishwoman who stands for good manners, cheerfulness and not letting the side down.

Of course, to some extent, this is caricature. Thanks to her regal bearing, crisp speaking tones (the result of elocution lessons as a child) and a lifetime of playing elegant, bossy, snobbish women, it’s easy to confuse the actress with the parts.

But there’s more than a glimmer of truth to the impression, too, underlined by the fact that she works tirelessly for good causes. When I ask her to list the local charities and organisations she supports, there’s a moment’s pause.

“Now let me think what I’ve done this week. I’m a trustee of Brooklands, the British motorsport and aviation museum. I’m patron of Guildford Samaritans – they had their AGM this week. I’m president of an organisation called Keep Out [formerly the Crime Diversion Scheme], a project piloted at Coldingley and Send prisons in Surrey, where inmates are encouraged to visit young offenders in other institutions to talk them into a better way of life. I’m patron of Oakleaf, the mental health charity based in Guildford, and president of the South West Surrey branch of the National Trust...” She stops to catch her breath, but one senses she is far from finished.

When I ask what drives her to work so hard, she is uncharacteristically nonplussed. “Oh dear... I don’t know.” Perhaps she has a strong altruistic streak? “I hope so. One of the great tenets of my life is that the way for evil to thrive is for good men to do nothing.”

Her good works have not gone unrecognised, and in March she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her 50-year acting career and work with good causes. “It was amazing – marvellous recognition for keeping at it as long as I have,” she says. “And I’m so proud of the fact that it’s not only for my work, but for the charities with which I’m associated.

“It was a wonderful day because it was at Windsor Castle. As my husband said, ‘Better for parking’. Things like that do matter,” she says whimsically. “It was a glum day, but the occasion itself was very cosy because there were only 66 recipients and everyone was terribly friendly. The Queen and I talked about another charity with which I’m involved, the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, which commemorates the lives of servicemen and public servicemen who have been lost since the Second World War.”


At home in Milford

The fact that Penelope spends so much time in the public eye makes her time at home, in Milford near Godalming, all the more special. She shares her home, a 17th-century house set in an acre-and-a-half of land, with her husband Rodney, a former policeman, whom she married in 1978 and who acts as her manager. She says she will never move because her roots are there, and she intends to be buried in her walled garden. “My idea of heaven is listening to the Test Match while taking cuttings in the greenhouse.”

Fiercely loyal to the village, whose residents are equally protective of her, she is known simply as Mrs Timson, and delights in the fact that she can name her local trades- people. “I don’t see our milkie, but I know Den, our postman, and everybody in the local shops.”

She believes villages like Milford are the beguiling vestiges of a vanishing England. “We have people in our village who have worked on the land since leaving school and whose lives are still built around country traditions. They are the heroes of our times, but we take them for granted.”

Like many people in our county, she also has deep misgivings about the encroaching urban sprawl from London and believes Surrey is under constant threat from property developers. “Vast housing estates built in the countryside remove the reason why people want to live here in the first place. There is too much concrete, not to mention all the paving in our front gardens and the chopping down of all our wonderful hedgerows. Is it any wonder we’ve suffered so much flooding? In a part of my garden, which was very prone to flooding, I planted a hornbeam hedge because they lap up water. There are the remedies around us, but all we do is throw up more houses and put down more concrete.”

As a former High Sheriff of Surrey, who now serves as a Deputy Lieutenant, she is also frustrated by what she perceives as the reluctance of Russian oligarchs and other ‘non-doms’, who have bought up gated mansions in St George’s Hill and Wentworth, to be part of the community.

“There are so many exceedingly rich people around, but they seem to live behind electric gates. Whenever I go to charity fund-raisers, it’s always the same wonderful people who give. If only we could tap into some of that money... How do I let them know about battered wives, or my prison charity, or the school in India? I don’t think they want to know.”

Hearing Penelope’s refined tones, people often assume she comes from the highest echelons of society. Yet she was born to no great advantages in Clapham, South London, where she knew she wanted to be an actress from the age of five.


The Good Life

Her big break came in 1975 in the BBC sitcom The Good Life, famously set in Surbiton, in which she played Margo Leadbetter, the posh neighbour of Tom and Barbara, a couple who turn their suburban home into a self-sufficient organic smallholding. She is grateful for the opportunities the series afforded her and still gets letters from people saying, “I grew up with you”. But though the repeats endure, recent months have witnessed the sad loss of two of the show’s comic greats, lead actor Richard Briers and co-writer Bob Larbey.

Later this year, she will be presenting a BBC tribute to Larbey, following hot on the heels of Morecambe and Wise in Pieces, a series of themed compilation programmes that she hosted in the winter. “When I do TV these days, it’s usually about people who are dead,” she says drily, “but it’s rather nice because people like seeing those programmes.”

When I ask if she has any work on the horizon, she says, “Nothing, which is lovely.” But don’t be fooled. “Actors don’t retire, they just stop being asked to work, and that hasn’t happened yet,” she recently admitted. “I heard someone on the wireless the other day saying you don’t retire because you get old, you get old because you retire, which I think is a very good motto, don’t you?”


My Favourite Surrey...

Restaurant: I don’t go to restaurants, so I’ll say the Surrey dining tables of friends who invite us to dinner.

Shops: It has to be my lovely Milford shops – there’s Dave at the Meat and Fish Market, Mrs Gohil at the chemist and Secretts, a wonderful farmshop. I believe strongly in buying local.

View: The one that always gladdens my heart is from the top of Stag Hill when I travel up the A3, particularly at night. When I see that wonderful velvet sky and the stars, I know I’m nearly home.

Place to relax: My garden. I have a wee wood, which is full of bluebells in the spring.

Place to visit: Guildford Cathedral. More than 100,000 people are welcomed to the cathedral each year and it’s a valued community resource and landmark building.